SATN helps boost PhD capacity in South Africa

The South African Technology Network (SATN) has partnered with the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) to launch a Staff PhD Capacity Enhancement Programme designed to raise the number and quality of PhDs coming out of universities of technology and previously disadvantaged universities in South Africa.

The programme, which launched in Johannesburg in June, gives 50 aspiring PhD students across 11 South African universities of technology (UoTs) and previously disadvantaged universities the opportunity to complete their studies with the help of top lecturers and professors in the country and abroad.

Emphasis is placed on ensuring that candidates complete their PhD studies in the prescribed four-year timeframe rather than the national average of eight years. The programme is structured towards reducing the dropout rate of PhD candidates in South Africa, a figure which currently stands at an estimated 60%.

Cutting-edge research and published work

The three- to four-year structured programme is coordinated by SATN, a consortium of universities of technology in South Africa and the Southern African Development Community region, and is funded by the DHET. According to SATN, the content, curriculum and model of programme have been designed to respond to the urgent need to increase the number and quality of academic staff that hold doctorates.

Candidates will be expected not only to produce cutting-edge research and published work, but also train the next generation of doctorate holders in South Africa.

“Pursuing a PhD can be a lonely and isolating process so one of the chief benefits of this programme is the cohort model, which allows candidates to learn from peers who happen to be in similar or different disciplines,” said Dr Anshu Padayachee, chief executive officer of SATN.

Candidates began Module One of the programme in June and Module Two in July. Over the five-day period of Module One, candidates engaged in dynamic and interactive sessions that addressed aspects related to research integrity, proposal writing and ethical principles in research. Local and international facilitators were invited to share their knowledge and skills to encourage robust, rigorous and innovative research.

Optimism 

So far, candidates are optimistic and full of praise for the programme, with some saying the sessions helped them to reconsider their research topics, have a better understanding of what was expected of them through each stage of the PhD, and clarify theoretical and conceptual frameworks they were unsure about.

The second module, which began on 15 July, focused on principles related to research design and methodologies.

Based on a cohort model, the model builds on the idea of collective engagement, and seeks to create opportunities for regional, national and global networking, said Padayachee. The programme aims to contribute to the creation of a collective community of practice, which includes candidates, supervisors and facilitators from multiple disciplines to foster inter- and trans-disciplinary engagement.

Transformation

With an eye on transformation and the need to address gender and racial disparities in South African academia, 79% of the candidates are African Black females.

“In addition to being walked through every stage of their doctorate by top professors from across the country and world, they’re also getting a chance to exchange ideas, collaborate on research, develop networks and remain motivated because of the people around them.

“This PhD programme guarantees completion in a three-to-four year period and promotes the production of research-driven academics who will train the next generation of PhD candidates,” said Padayachee.

University World News spoke to Fatima Peters, a lecturer in the psychology department at the University of Venda in Limpopo province, who said she feels blessed to have been selected to participate in the programme.

‘Lost in the water, like driftwood’

“Prior to joining the Staff PhD Capacity Enhancement Programme, I was like driftwood, lost in the water,” she said. After two years of working on her proposal, Peters found she had made no inroads into her research. It was a “difficult and isolating experience to be alone and struggling without any direction”, she said.

Speaking about Module One, Peters said: “It has facilitated a greater focus on my part … [We have had] some excellent presenters who have given us some excellent feedback.

“I feel that over the past three weeks I have progressed much faster than the prior two years. I have been taken through the central aspects of research proposals, academic writing and research methodology.”

Working as part of a cohort also appeals to her. “Having 49 other peers who are willing to listen and give you their thoughts has been really good. I feel like I am part of a family and we are all working to make South Africa better,” she said.

“The nice thing about working with peers is that you want to be a part of the group. You do not want to be left behind. So inadvertently the programme facilitates knowledge and capacity development but also motivates on a deeper level. Group cohesion is a powerful motivator.”

Advocate Sithe Ngombane, an associate lecturer at the Faculty of Law in the University of the Western Cape is another participant in the programme who spoke to University World News: “The opportunity to receive feedback on the go, from facilitators and from your peers, gives more insight and you are able to incorporate the suggestions while the thought is still fresh and alive in your mind.”

Ngombane listed as further benefits: “New knowledge on methodologies, how to use them and generally, how to approach PhD research” as well as “providing the platform and means to many people who are capable and competent but are not given such an opportunity”.

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About Meneesha

Online and books editor by day, mum even while I sleep, individual all the time. I live in the beautiful city of Durban - the unpolished gem in South Africa. If I didn't have a family, I'd be that crazy cat lady your mum probably warned you not to feed! Blogging is where I share, vent, rant, laugh and generally be myself. Join the ride!

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